We Interviewed Founder Chloe Uyen Tran to Learn More
You’re searching far and wide for the perfect leather jacket. The one that is not from animal skin, nor “vegan leather” –often code for cheap PET plastics. Nothing in sight. Leather is a tricky material for eco-conscious fashion companies: most just skip manufacturing leather fashion goods, and the few that do usually use deadstock – aka leftover material. While this is better than trashing it, the damage to the animals and planet from the production of that leather has still happened.
The only solution is to create a new type of leather that’s 100% natural. We’ve seen leather from apples and cacti but were intrigued when we learned about TômTex .
It’s a new generation 100% bio-based leather made from two of human’s most prevalent food waste – seafood shells and coffee grounds. The company was founded by designer Chloe Uyen Tran and the odd name is an homage to her Vietnamese roots. “Tôm” means shrimp, and shrimp processing is an important agricultural export product that generates a lot of income. But it also generates a lot of waste –or in other words, shrimp shells.
SHELL SEAFOOD WASTE
The food industry generates 6 million to 8 million metric tons of crab, shrimp and lobster shell waste every year. This seafood waste often contains a huge amount of chitin, a polysaccharide that exhibits exceptional inherent characteristics including biodegradability, antimicrobial and antioxidant activities.
COFFEE GROUND WASTE
Worldwide, we produce almost 9.5 million tons of waste coffee grounds every year and most of it ends up in landfills where every ton generates 14 tons of CO2.
Born and raised in Vietnam, Chloe witnessed firsthand the textile pollution caused by large clothing brands fulfilling their overseas orders. With TômTex she turns chitosan, the special crustacean shell chemical extraction, into award-winning biomaterial.
Since TômTex is plastic-free, it can be effortlessly recycled into brand new material with no sacrifice in performance. This special feature has earned TômTex impressive recognition, including winning the CFDA K11 Innovation Prize and being a finalist in the 2021 LVMH Innovation Award.
She shared with us her journey from designing for Alexander Wang and Peter Do to becoming a textile designer who creates her own material that is at the frontier of fashion biotech.
No Kill Mag/Jacqueline: How did you get into biomaterials?
Chloe: I grew up in Da Nang, Vietnam. It’s the epicenter of the wasted textile landfill. I remember growing up wearing second-hand clothes, which were discarded from western countries. It was devastating to see my hometown contaminated by the textile pollution from all these garments made from polyester and other synthetics.
Years later, after I moved to the United States, I freelanced as a fashion designer for Alexander Wang and Peter Do. I worked with a lot of different types of leather and synthetic fabric during my years at these fashion houses, however it still made me think of home but also of those toxins. Then I went back to graduate school for textile design at Parsons. As I began to work on my bio-design project, I thought about other things that reminded me of home—like the seafood factory near my parent’s house, or the coffee ground waste that I threw away every morning. If you look at the statistics, every year 17 million tons of seafood waste and coffee grounds end up in the world’s landfills.
How would you describe TômTex to a customer who has never heard of biomaterials?
With the vision to act as a cruelty free and eco-friendly alternative to synthetic and animal leathers, TômTex is a revolutionary bio-based material, created from two key ingredients: seashell waste and mushrooms. TômTex is made from 100% bio-based ingredients and natural colors without tanning process or backing fabric. At the end of life, TômTex products can be disassembled and fed back into TômTex production or fully biodegradable in a natural environment. Not only using various wastes as raw material inputs, but TômTex production also consumes significantly less water, energy, and land use compared to the standard production of synthetic or animal leather.
What is it like running your company day-to-day?
The most difficult aspect of an entrepreneur’s day is trying to figure out what NOT to do.
My day begins by catching up on email, news, anything that could impact what I’m doing in my business. The early morning hours are my quiet time so it’s when I get organized for the day. I update task lists, get my day in order, look at upcoming meetings and any preparation necessary for the day. Our R&D team and operation team work side by side every day. We have meetings with each team, about the stuff we need to build next and how we are achieving that.
What do you see as your best accomplishment so far?
Along with the awards and the Biotech community’s support, forming a strong team is my greatest achievement so far. With a dedicated team of designers, scientists, and businesspeople, we work across industry boundaries to provide this sustainable material to everyone and to help protect the earth. At TômTex, I want to build a culture where everyone feels accepted, valued, and has a sense of belonging. We create an environment that fosters transparency, trust, empowerment, and empathy.
What has been the biggest challenge so far?
A lack of stakeholders’ support within the ecosystem, including brands, investors, and supply chain partners. We need more funding, collaborating, and sharing information. All industries working together can create the conditions for success more easily. In addition, brands come to us with unique requests for unique material properties. However, our material technology is still in development. We hope brands will be patient with us and get involved in the material development phase by collaborating, offering tests, and providing data.
You had experience as a freelance fashion designer for Ralph Lauren, Peter Do, and Alexander Wang before transitioning to becoming a full-fledged textile designer. What was the reason behind the career move?
I’ve valued the experience and the team I’ve had working with Peter Do, Wang, and Ralph Lauren. As a fashion designer, I worked with a lot of types of fabric. In the process I learned about 60% of synthetic fabrics are made of fossil fuels and 85% of that material will end up in landfills, where it won’t decay and decompose.
For example, polyester is made from fossil fuels that emit greenhouse gases and shed microfibers that add plastic pollution in the ocean. Also, chemicals used to process leather produce textile waste that goes into the environment. About two-thirds of our clothing comes from fossil fuel-derived synthetics and making these materials is a carbon-intensive process. It’s a problematic issue and that’s why I want to become a textile designer, so that I can design more sustainable material.
You create leathers from shell seafood waste, mushrooms, as well as wasted coffee grounds. Where do you source input materials?
We work with our suppliers around the world. Recently, we signed a MOU (Memorandum of Understanding) with one of the biggest chitosan suppliers in Vietnam. They collect shell seafood waste from seafood manufacturers and local restaurants to extract chitosan and other valuable ingredients.
Can you share with us the process of how food waste is turned into fabric?
At TômTex we are combining textile design and science. First, we extract chitosan from seashell waste and mushrooms, then combine this with other biopolymers and green substances through a strong crosslinking biopolymer process. After mixing the formula with natural dye, we put it into the mold and generate beautiful textures. Within just two to three days we can harvest the materials, ready to use.
What are TômTex ’s best uses?
TômTex biobased material is suitable for use as clothing, footwear, handbags, accessory, furniture, tools, and sports equipment.
Your dream partnership would be with?
A dream partnership would be one that shared a vision for developing the future of materials while exploring new design possibilities. We want to collaborate with a brand that bakes sustainability and social issues into its business, which can actually motivate people to buy greener, more sustainable products. One of the main things we want to do is to facilitate this kind of win-win partnership by increasing transparency of what each party wants and decreasing that sourcing friction so we can accelerate innovative materials to go commercial quicker.
What do you think is the biggest reason fashion companies have yet to adopt biomaterials on large scale production? Is it price?
It takes time to develop sustainable materials to meet the needs of the fashion industry.
The myriad complexities presented by novel material development need to come with realistic time-to-market expectations. The issue is not lack of brand engagement. It is simply the extended time it takes to close the gap between early prototypes and refining materials. The gap between limited edition quantities and readily available commercial volumes is still likely to be a couple of years or more.
Does TômTex have any bottlenecks and how do you plan to resolve them?
A key challenge we face is scaling up new technology. To be truly sustainable technology needs to keep pace with civilization. We are working with biomaterial scientists in the US and Vietnam to tailor technology in ways that can work for different communities around the world. By using local resources and labor, we will build a closed-loop production system to boost the local economy. This will also maintain and improve the quality of life and create a sustainable environment in the future.
Your work has expanded to the realms of fashion, textile, and even tech. Do you think having multifaceted expertise is a must for creatives nowadays?
Today’s world is extremely interconnected. This opens up a lot of possibilities in terms of collaboration between artists, designers, engineers, and businesspeople. The key is to empower the community and work with people cross-industry to solve problems. Fortunately, I have had the support of the biotech community from the very beginning. Now we have a multidisciplinary team of individuals with varying backgrounds and skills working together to develop novel materials holistically.
One quote to live by?
Is there anyone else in biomaterial space you think we should know about?